In Riga's Latvian National Opera House, the two Bayreuth Festival Orchestra concerts hosted by the Riga Jurmala Music Festival were greeted with a standing ovation and shouts of joy. The evenings were sold out, with a dressed up audience which is to be lauded for its total silence during the concert. Autumn has come to Riga and yet no one is clearing their throats. These two concerts were recorded by Latvian Radio and the first one was filmed – it was broadcast on television a mere hour after the end of the second, on the evening of 4th September. The country spared no effort in welcoming its prodigal son back to his homeland, with the festival playing its full part by organising a reception for all the orchestra members with their soloists and conductor – who was welcomed by his troops with unimaginable warmth.

The Bayreuth Festival Orchestra in Riga
© Riga Jurmala Music Festival

Born in Riga in 1978, Andris Nelsons knows the hall well. Before he left Latvia for Germany, Britain and the United States, where he holds or has held prestigious positions in Leipzig, Manchester and Boston, he conducted the Latvian National Orchestra there. The story goes that this child of professional musicians experienced his first classical music epiphany in this hall, at a performance of Wagner's Tannhaüser, when he was just a small child.

Andris Nelsons with Klaus Florian Vogt and Christine Goerke
© Riga Jurmala Music Festival

Which brings us on to Wagner and the relationship between voice, orchestra, acoustic and audience, an essential subject which is all too easily forgotten despite Wagner's demands, which led to the construction of the Bayreuth Festspielhaus according to his plans, given that his operas are so costly to perform – whether staged or in concert – due to the lengthy rehearsal times needed and top level singers, leading to them being performed in huge spaces which considerably alter the relation of the audience to the music, and the singers to the art of singing. Two nights before the Riga concerts, Parisians were able to hear the same works played in the Grande Salle Pierre Boulez at the Paris Philharmonie, a space that would have swallowed the 933 music fans installed this evening in Riga's magnificent and recently restored gilded candy box. On stage, the Bayreuth Festival Orchestra is playing in such serried rows that the rotund Nelsons has to tuck in his belly with a giggle to carve out a path to the podium. In the prelude to Lohengrin, it's the orchestra that swallows us, coming to us as much as we go to it, rendering us inseparable: the physical and psychological effect of the sound is violently emotional even when the orchestra is playing at its softest.

Klaus Florian Vogt
© Riga Jurmala Music Festival

This continues throughout the first concert, marked by moments of incredible dramatic intensity from the orchestra and both soloists. Klaus Florian Vogt is a tenor whose phrasing is so subtle, whose legato is so perfect, whose musicality is so exemplary that one concludes that he must be a great performer of Winterreise: here, he is a moving Lohengrin and Parsifal. Christine Goerke is a soprano whose vibrato is a bit broad but is quickly brought under control: her valiance and her inexhaustible reserves of breath make her triumph easily over the rigours of Brünnhilde's Immolation from Götterdämerung.

For all the first evening's quality, it will be trumped on the following night by the first act of Die Walküre. Nelsons is the magician who allows his orchestra and his three singers to breath; every desk in the orchestra covers itself in glory, even if the sound – produced in the open here – has a slightly matt and paradoxically clean edge which the enclosed pit of Bayreuth seems to have etched into its reptilian brain. Living through this musical experience is a privilege. How on earth can the conductor be creating this illusion of delivering the highest possible power without ever drowning out the singers – better still, carrying them with a devotion that is evident from the glances they exchange?

Günther Groissböck
© Riga Jurmala Music Festival

Joining the tenor and soprano of the first evening, Günther Groissböck brings to the role of the evil Hunding the piercing darkness of a voice as striking as is his technique, before returning for a tear-jerking Wotan's Farewell. What an artist! But we again need to doff our caps to Vogt: his timbre doesn't have the mysterious aura of the greats, but his musicianship, his elaboration of phrases, the way in which he incarnates Siegmund to point of demonic possession put to silence any futile comparisons, so great is the emotion that he projects together with his Sieglinde.


Alain's trip was sponsored by the Riga Jurmala Music Festival

Translated from French by David Karlin.

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